Kipple: behind the scenes

A composite recording of Kipple, made from a workshop recording with members of the the Plus-Minus Ensemble in the Michael Tippett Centre at Bath Spa University.

How does one write a piece? While writing Kipple, I shared photos of the sketches, score, and the process in general. Why did I write this piece? Firstly I was required to write a piece for clarinet, cello and piano to satisfy the requirements of second trimester of postgraduate composition studies at Bath Spa University.

Photo of notebook page showing first thoughts on what to write

I started with an idea, a feeling I wanted to convey. The feeling was brought on by a then recent job, where I became exasperated by the piling up of dishes no matter how frequently, or how frequently a section of the business would have to be cleaned, only to be quickly dirtied up again. I felt like I could never get ahead, that no matter how hard I worked, work would just pile up. This reminded me of a concept from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In which the character JR sees the detritus of life expanding, no matter the effort made to contain it. Perhaps this concept could have been expressed as “Sisyphean,” but the idea of being bombarded by an impossible to manage, that there wasn’t even the Sisyphean illusion of a goal, felt like a closer match. It would be sexy or noble to relate this to current topics like climate change or any number of current political challenges, which is possible, but if I’m being honest, this piece was a response to having too many dishes to do.

My emotional response to this situation was a wailing descending despair. When I began to audiate this idea in my head, using specific notes did not seem to fit the feeling I had in mind. What was of paramount importance to me was the “wailing” aspect of the gesture. I wasn’t sure how to notate this idea, but my tutor, James Saunders, helped me along this path by showing me a score called The Crutch of Memoryby Aaron Cassidy. Instead of indicating specific pitches, Cassidy notates the gestures the musician is to perform. I researched his music further, eventually pinging him on Twitter after I Tweeted a performance of hisSecond String Quartet. He responded by sharing an article he wrote on the notation he used in that piece. I emailed him to thank him for the information and to ask if he wouldn’t mind if I adapted his system for my own piece. He responded kindly by saying he didn’t feel that he had ownership of it and that I should also check out other people on whose work his own was built, like Lachenmannand others. Essentially, this was my introduction to the concept of “decoupled parametric composition.” For those of you who don’t know what this is, instead of using conventional notation to tell a violinist which pitch to play, with what bow direction and at what dynamic, the finger, hand and bow positions are indicated independent of each other. The results will vary, of course. For instance, as I did with the clarinet part, fingerings can occur independently of when the musician is to engage their embouchure or when they breath.  

Decouple parametric approach to writing for clarinet: air pressure, embouchure shape and fingerings are notated independent of each other.

The sounds resulting from this decoupled approach might differ from musician to musician: if a certain length of bow is indicated to be used at a certain dynamic, say from the frog to tip of the bow, two string players may arrive at this point at different times. Beyond wanting to notate or indicate a gesture, I wanted the musicians’ bodies themselves help determine the length of time a gesture would last (the sound of a hand palm brushing piano strings might be affected by hand size; one clarinettist might have greater air capacity than another, affecting how long a gesture requiring full breath will take). I wanted the length of gestures to be determined by bodies as opposed to an external force like a clock, because I wanted to the human body to reclaim agency from the clock, which I felt, at the time of composition, was a menace that was keeping everyone unhappy by trying to put strictures upon the body that might not actually be good for it. 

Of course, this approach to time made coordination of multiple parts difficult. I wanted gestures to be governed by the human body, but I still wanted musicians to traverse from one state to another. The piece has, essentially, four sections/states, which join to form an unending cycle. But given the nature of the length of each individual gesture, I wasn’t sure how to get from one section to the other. I searched for methods of writing that were not discursive, or narrative based, but based on contingencies. One possible model was Terry Riley’s In Cwhere musicians proceed from one musical module to the next at more or less their own pace. The problem with this method for me was that it didn’t fit the cyclical nature of the piece or that I still wanted distinct sections. My tutor showed me the work of Charlie Sdraulingas well as Lutoslawski’s String Quartet. Both composers used text to indicate when a musician was to move onto a new section. I decided I wanted to use a more graphically-based score, but I wasn’t sure how to approach this.

 A Google search on contingency based systems eventually turned up “finite automata theory.”Basically, in finite automata theory, a machine, or automata, listens for particular inputs, which, upon acceptance by the automata, moves to a different state. One basic example of a finite automata machine is a turnstile that accepts specific tokens: if it receives an accepted token, it enters a new state and the lock on the turnstile is released, allowing someone to pass through; once the turnstile is rotated again, it returns to the first state, the state where it accepts tokens. The whole of finite automata theory is far more complex than this, but this basic understanding provided a sufficient model for how musicians could progress to different sections, which I call states in Kipple

I wanted all the information to be on one page so that page-turns would not impede a complex process. This resulted in the creation of parts on A2 paper (I was delighted to use my photography experience to literally photocopy the parts, as I didn’t have access to scanners that could accommodate this paper size).

Photocopying the parts.

The unusual notation system I adapted for this piece meant that I would not be using my usual notation software, Finale. Using a vector-based illustration program, like Adobe Illustrator, would have been ideal. However, given my deadline and my lack of experience with such programs, I opted to hand-write the parts. The overall design process, from layout to pen thickness, was very satisfying.

However, my frequent mistakes resulted in a score marred by white-out; a hand-written part made any changes after taking feedback challenging. In future, if I continue to write music in this vein, I will use a computer program, just so I can make relatively painless adjustments and revisions to the score.

Clarinet Part
Cello Part
Piano Part

There are four states, each representing a point in the cycle of Kipple. The first state is the most chaotic and noisy, inundating the listener, reflecting the emotional response to the feeling that one is getting buried in detritus and just can’t get ahead. The second state is like the first, except that is slightly less chaotic: instead of the cello rapidly changing bow, the cellist’s gesture is completed in one bow; the clarinet’s gestures melts literally into air. The second state exists as if to indicate that one has actually gotten their life under control. The third state is the calm before the storm, though halting, not being able to fully come to rest. The fourth state is the most inaudible, as though the inevitable is happening even if we try to ignore it: the trash is piling up again. This returns us to the very beginning of the cycle where we are once again faced with the inevitable and unmanageable piling up of garbage. 

While the states could have been written out in a traditional manner, I wanted the transition from section to section to depend upon the coordination of the musicians’ gestures, the length of which would be determined by how they interpreted and played a gesture, as opposed to indicating, as in traditional notation, that an action happens at a specific point in time. For instance, if the cellist and the clarinet ended their gesture at the same time, a change in state would take place, not unlike the turnstile that changes states upon reception of an acceptable token. 

Example of part coordination and double bordered boxes used to indicate “accepting states” that instigate state changes.

The cues for what to listen and look out for, the acceptable “tokens” the machine would accept in order to change states, are indicated in the score by double-bordered boxes. In the case of listening for coordination of gestures, a vertical dashed line was used to indicate at what point in the gesture the state change would be triggered. 

Using these methods meant that the musicians would have to pay close attention to what the other musicians were doing. It was clear to me that this would result in confusion, but I wanted this confusion to be built into the process, which would be another way for the ensemble to traverse from state to state. For instance, one musician might have thought a state change was instigated, but the rest of the ensemble might not register it. But they would hear material from the next state being played meaning they would start playing in the new state after all. The difference in length between the individual gestures, the ideal progression to a new state based on the coordination of certain events, and the possibility for confusion provided an ample number of ways of combining material, instead of just notating the polyphony exactly. 

The feedback I received during and after the workshop were very helpful. It is always challenging to have to learn an unconventional notation system and also play it in the space of just an hour or so. The members of the Plus-Minus Ensemble that workshopped the piece were amazingly capable in this regard and helped point out some flaws in my approach.

Plus-Minus Ensemble members from left: Vicky Wright, Alice Purton, Mark Knoop.

Many of the shortcomings with my score were of communication or clearly conveying an idea; sometimes you become so familiar with a concept or notational quirk in your score that you take it for granted and forget to provide an explanation for it for when others have a look at the score.

But then there are the cases when one has a fundamental shortcoming, as I did with how fast the gestures were to be played. Just as I avoided specifying pitches, I wanted to avoid indicating tempi in either the metronomic sense (e.g. quarter-note/crotchet equals 120 beats per minute) and instead hoped that the speed of the gestures would be derived from the way I indicated the gestures to be performed. For example, I hoped that indicating a hard bow pressure would result in not just a loud sound but a fast gesture as well.

Clarinet part indicating air and embouchure pressure. Indicating pressure does not indicate speed, as I learned during the workshop for this piece.

Embarrassingly, I didn’t think this through and was presented with what appeared to be fairly self-evident: bow-pressure does not correlate like that with speed of bow movement. This same failure presented itself in the piano part where the hand is used to strum the strings. 

The score layout was, naturally, a source of much consternation. I decided on using an almost totally graphic approach, which would be explained in the performance notes/manual. One of the musicians asked if it might have been easier to use text, as Charlie Sdrauling does in his piece between. As I am still experimenting with this approach to creating a musical piece or sonic object, I will certainly try different approaches in the future. 

Matthew Sergeant, one of my course-leaders, said that my use of notation suited for decoupled parametric music might have not been necessary for the simple gestures I had written. In a conversation following the workshop, he said that parametric decoupling is a way of thinking of a single instrument polyphonically, e.g. the bow-hand has a distinctly different part than the fingerboard hand. He recommended that instead of jumping right into ensemble pieces for instruments engaged in decoupled acts, as I attempted to do in Kipple, that I should spend time on writing studies for solo instruments, to really get a grasp of what it means to write for an instrument in this way. 

The creative process is fraught on so many levels, not the least of which is emotionally. I had never worked so hard on a piece up this point: I adapted a notation system unfamiliar to me and made a first attempt at organising musical material in a novel way. Having undergone similar feedback processes in the past, I am aware that I, personally, have to let my immediate emotional response to a performance or workshop subside before I can objectively consider the feedback I have received. While I was initially a bit despondent right after the workshop, I eventually was happy to have made use of the time in a way I never used similar times in undergraduate: as an opportunity to try new things and experiment in a university setting as opposed to a “real-world” setting where there is often little time for such faltering.